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Movie Night: Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea

You can’t miss the whiff as you drive along the 10 freeway in California heading to or from Arizona, a strange and horrifying stench, the Salton Sea. Chris Metzler–who visited us last year with Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone–co-directed Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, an occasionally whimsical and deeply sad look at a man-made lake; the hopes, dreams and disasters that sprung from it; and the people who try to stay afloat on its shores.

Unlike the Dead Sea, the Salton Sea was folly that came to be, wrought out of man’s desire for water and arable land. Throughout the ages, as the rain fell, the basin would fill and then evaporate during drier times. But it was during the years of 1905 to 1907 when heavy rainfall and agricultural runoff caused the basin to fill, that the Salton Sea, was birthed.

The lake quickly became a regular stop for migrating birds, and by the 1920s was a tourist destination. Marine fish were introduced and thrived, drawing fishermen and boating enthusiasts. The post-World War II economic boom and a desire for vacation getaways proved lucrative for the Salton Sea fueling a land boom. (Sadly though, many plots were sold to speculators.)  A marina and boat club were built, and people moved to Salton City, Bombay Beach and other seaside enclaves.

But the Salton Sea is a closed system, water flows in but not out. And when two huge storms roared through in the winters of 1976 and 1977, the Salton Sea overflowed, destroying the boat club, the marina and many homes. The area never recovered, and worse disasters were in store as the salinity of the lake increased, causing fish to die off, plagues of dead birds and flies.

Metzler explores both the history of the Salton Sea, and the lives of people who have come to the edges of this strange, unnatural creation. Lechon moved to Bombay Beach with her mother and sister to get way from a rough neighborhood. Now she is raising her son there. Cuban immigrant Manny “The Landman” Diaz markets property as a cheap and good deal, a way for other immigrants to own a piece of the American Dream. Though one senior citizen admits his property is worth far less now than he paid for it and he can’t afford to move. Hunky Daddy, the “mayor” of Bombay Beach drinks beer in his cement front yard, berating the government for not doing enough to clean up and rescue the area. Leonard Knight, the creator of Salvation Mountain, hopes that his strange folk art monument will become a major tourist attraction and help restore the Salton Sea and nearby towns to their former glory.

And in the midst of all of this is the near-savior of the Salton Sea, the late singer/songwriter/Congressman, Sonny Bono who introduced legislation to somehow save the Salton Sea. After his death in 1996, Congress made some funds available, and the the Sonny Bono Salton Sea Restoration Project was named for him. Aside from a wildlife refuge, very little has been done in Sonny’s name.

Water trades have further sapped the Salton Sea, and now its future lies rotting like the corpses of the fish along its shore. There is no easy fix for this uneasy piece of desert land created by hubris and doomed by man’s unholy rape of nature.

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.